media and cultural studies

media and cultural studies
   Cultural studies emerged during the late 1950s as a new field of knowledge production in British universities, and over subsequent decades has spread internationally, notably to the USA and Australia. In its first formation, cultural studies provided a forum in which culture, society and history were given full weight in the analysis of media texts, and where the symbolic, meaningful character of social relations could be explored. Contemporary cultural studies of the media represent a greatly expanded field of various research projects and diverse theoretical discourses ranging from Marxism and feminism, psychoanalysis and ethnography, to poststructuralism and postmodernism. While it is true to say that the academic study of media has a long history, especially in Europe and the United States, cultural studies approaches to media have shifted attention from ‘media effects’ and positivistic ‘mass communications’ debates to critical questions about the complex mediations which negotiate the encounter between media signifying practices and audience-decoding strategies.
   One of the founding texts of British cultural studies, Richard Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy (1957) explores the terrain of communications and media from the perspective of culture conceptualized as part of the social experience of everyday life. Hoggart criticized postwar mass culture (‘Americanization’) as disintegrative of traditional working-class communality and solidarity. ‘We are moving towards the creation of a mass culture’, Hoggart claimed, and ‘the remnants of what was at least in parts an urban culture “of the people” are being destroyed’. Hoggart’s critique of the ‘corrupt brightness…improper appeals and moral eva-sions’ of mass entertainment is set against an ethnographic mapping of residual forms of industrial working-class culture and their particular institutions. In fact, Hoggart develops the contrast between the ‘older’ and ‘newer’ cultures in Leavisite aesthetic and ethical terms (see Leavis, F.R.). The new commercial media are castigated as ‘trivial’ and ‘anti-life’, while the values of the older culture are said to embody values of ‘the personal, the concrete, the local’.
   Like Hoggart’s work, Raymond Williams’s The Long Revolution (1961) places communications at the centre of ‘common experience’, proposing that: Since our way of seeing is literally our way of living, the process of communication is in fact the process of community: the sharing of common meanings, and thence common activities and purposes; the offering, reception and comparison of new meanings, leading to tensions and achievements of growth and change. (Williams 1965:55)
   Williams’s theory of communications takes a dialectical and constructivist approach to culture: communities and social institutions in specific historical circumstances produce culture and negotiate social meanings. Specifically, Williams locates the media and the social production of meaning at the fulcrum of historical change. On the whole, Williams tends towards a more affirmative evaluation of the new media than Hoggart, and in part sees his project as an attempt to formulate criteria for aesthetic and moral discrimination between media products, between ‘bad culture’ such as ‘the latest Tin-Pan drool’ and the ‘good living culture’ of jazz (a ‘real musical form’) and the ‘wonderful game’ of football. The formation of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) in 1963 at the University of Birmingham under the directorship of Richard Hoggart, followed by Stuart Hall (1969–79), represents a watershed in the development of the field of cultural studies. During the 1970s, the CCCS faculty and graduate students pursued the collective critical study of newly translated texts of Western Marxism (the Frankfurt School, Louis Althusser and Antonio Gramsci) in an effort to develop a theory of ideology structured by class categories and cognizant of the enlarged cultural power of the media. According to Hall, the vocation of the CCCS was ‘to enable people to understand what is going on, and especially to provide ways of thinking, strategies for survival, and resources for resistance’. This vocation, together with the commitment to analysis of culture ‘from below’, resulted in the classic CCCS youth subculture studies, notably Dick Hebdige’s Subculture: The Meaning of Style (1979), and the signature collective text Policing the Crisis (1978).
   Using Gramsci’s theory of hegemony and Althusser’s conceptualization of media as an ideological state apparatus, Policing the Crisis is a ‘conjunctural’ analysis of media signifying practices in the context of economic decline, social conflict and the general crisis of authority in post-imperial Britain. Focusing on the exhaustion of ‘spontaneous consent’ to state authority in the 1970s and the media’s role in constructing ‘mugging’ as a ‘moral panic’, the authors theorize that this moral panic signifies the political transition to an ‘exceptional’ form of ‘coercive’ state management of class conflict. In this account, the media are seen as ‘a field of ideological struggle’ and ‘a key terrain where “consent” is won and lost’. Because the media legitimate through their ‘own constructions and inflections’ the definitions and interpretations of events as seen from the ‘primary’ perspective of the ‘ruling class alliance’, they are understood as central to the maintenance of its ideological authority. In their concrete analysis of street crime news reporting and the demonizing of young black British males as muggers, the authors argue that the media relied on government, police and judiciary sources as their ‘primary definers’. Youth cultures and street crime were thereby discursively contextualized as parts of a general ‘law and order’ problem. The media’s ideological amplification of this perspective resulted in popular support for ‘the measures of control and containment which this version of social reality entails’, particularly the passage of the notoriously racist stop-and-search or ‘suss’ law. Criticism has been made that this neo-Gramscian theory of media as ‘a field of ideological struggle’ and contested cultural meanings is not easily squared with the univocal implications of the claim that the media operate in a role of ‘structured subordination’ to the primary definitions of the ruling-class alliance. It was partly in response to this ideological dilemma that Hall produced the classic treatise ‘Encoding/Decoding’ (1980). For Hall, media codes were to be critically analysed in terms of encoded ‘preferred readings’ and contextually situated decodings or productions of meaning by media audiences. Hall proposes that three major reading strategies structure the decoding process: dominant, negotiated and oppositional readings. Hall’s theoretical intervention was complemented by Dave Morley’s important empirical study TheNationwide’ Audience: Structure and Decoding (1980). Morley redirected the community and communications focus of the early work of Hoggart and Williams to the ethnographic study of television audiences. He explored audience sense-making processes in relation to popular current affairs programming. He aimed to produce a typology of cultural responses to a budget day episode of Nationwide from twenty-nine audience discussion groups, including managers, trade unionists, students and Caribbean women. Morley found that particular audiences differed in their decoding practices, and explained these differences primarily through class factors. For example, the trade union group objected to the programme’s content but accepted its style, while the managerial group did the opposite. Morley also found that participants in various groups were aware of the ‘preferred’ meaning of Nationwide, but that ‘awareness of the construction by no means entails the rejection of what is being constructed’. Like Hall, Morley divided the range of audience responses into categories of dominant, negotiated and oppositional readings, and strongly critiqued the unilinear determinism implicit in the assumption that media texts determine audience response.
   Hall’s critical semiotics of encoding and decoding and Morley’s empirical study of audience decoding practices heralded an ethnographic turn in cultural studies of the media to the qualitative audience research of the 1980s. In fact, this ethnographic work also interrupted the neo-Marxist class perspective of cultural studies of the media by introducing first, feminist analytics, and second, the politics of race and ethnicity. The latter interruption is best exemplified by the work of Paul Gilroy, while Dorothy Hobson’s 1982 study of the mainly female viewership of the British soap opera Crossroads bears directly on questions of media. Hobson went to women’s homes to watch and discuss Crossroads and found that it was incorporated into the everyday lives of its audience and was a shared source of pleasure and conversation among its female fans. Far from being passive in face of serial television production, female fans bring meaning to the programme by drawing on personal and community experience. For Hobson, soap opera ‘is one of the most progressive forms of television because it is a form where the audience is in control’, and therefore to ‘try to say what Crossroads means to its audience is impossible for there is no single Crossroads, there are as many different Crossroads as there are viewers’. Similarly, Ien Ang’s important study, Watching Dallas (1985), investigated the reception of the world’s most widely viewed television programme of the 1980s, the North American serial Dallas. Like Hobson, Ang designed her study of Dutch fan letters to explore how the popular appeal of the television serial for female fans ‘is connected with our individual life histories, with the social situation we are in, with the aesthetic and cultural preferences we have developed and so on’. Developing a theory of the ‘melodramatic imagination’, Ang proposed that the soap operas are made up of ‘an ensemble of textual devices for engaging the viewer at the level of fantasy’. The pleasures of the text occur as subjectively experienced ‘structures of feeling’ and hence to enjoy Dallas it is necessary to have learned a repertoire of ‘cultural competencies’ and appropriate decoding practices: ‘the tragic structure of feeling suggested by Dallas will only make sense’, Ang argues, ‘if one can project oneself into, i.e. recognize, a melodramatic imagination’. Cultural studies was also spreading overseas to Australia, and by the mid-1980s were fast becoming institutionalized in North American universities. In the USA, with some particular exceptions such as the Marxist Literary Group’s annual Institute of Culture and Society, the Marxist politics and ambitions of British cultural studies were abandoned in favour of eclecticism in approaches to both theory building and cultural politics. Feminisms and sexuality studies, race and ethnicity research, poststructuralist and post-colo-nial theories and a wide variety of perspectives on popular culture and media characterize the main currents of North American cultural studies. Many cultural studies of the media in the late 1980s and 1990s incorporated currents of postmodern media theory and a mode of cultural populism, exemplified by John Fiske’s Television Culture (1987) and Understanding Popular Culture (1989). Fiske’s model of ‘active’ audiences who enact resistance to hegemony through subversive or oppositional readings and pleasurable appropriations of media texts stimulated a wave of ‘new revisionist’ studies concerned with the pleasures of popular culture and the resistant-decoding practices of postmodern media audiences. The overemphasis on audience agency and the neglect of the efficacy of social structure and power in this view has been extensively critiqued by cultural studies and media theorists. For example, Morley argues in Television: Audience and Cultural Studies (1992) that the challenge facing future cultural studies of television media will be the ‘attempt to construct a model of television consumption that is sensitive to both the “vertical” dimensions of power and ideology and the “horizontal” dimension of television’s insertion in, and articulation with, the context and practices of everyday life’. This call for the reinvigoration of a critical dimension in cultural studies of the media has been a shaping context for the work of Hall and others, including Paul Smith, in the 1990s.
   Further reading
    Ang, I. (1985) Watching Dallas, London: Routledge.
    Brantlinger, P. (1990) Crusoe’s Footprints: Cultural Studies in Britain and America, London: Routledge (a useful genealogy of cultural studies).
    Fiske, J. (1987) Television Culture: London, Methuen.
    —— (1989) Understanding Popular Culture, London: Unwin Hyman.
    Hall, S. et al. (1978) Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State and Law and Order, London: Macmillan.
    —— (eds) (1980) Culture, Media and Language, London: Hutchinson (a good synoptic anthology of 1970s CCCS cultural studies and media theory).
    Hoggart, R. (1957) The Uses of Literacy, Harmondsworth: Penguin.
    Morley, D. (1980) TheNationwide’ Audience: Structure and Decoding, London: BFI.
    —— (1992) Television: Audience and Cultural Studies, London: Routledge.
    Morley, D. and Chen, K.S. (eds) (1996) Stuart Hall: Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies, London: Routledge (an important collection, including essays and interviews with Hall, discussing his intellectual project and its key place in development of cultural studies).
    Williams, R. (1965) The Long Revolution, Harmondsworth, Pelican.

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.

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